It was well past midnight when the king finally died.
His last breath was a foul and extended one, a long, rattling sigh that stank of the cancer that had devoured him from the inside. He lay still under the thin blanket that had been all he would keep on, his bed surrounded by flickering candles and the remnants of the Royal Physician’s tools. Ceramic bowls filled with grey and cloudy water; wet cloths in a pile by the bed; small pots with creams and powders, tinctures and salves and pastes and oils; a thin-bladed knife and a covered bowl containing sated leeches.
The doctor himself, an old and exhausted man, let out a breath of his own. Carefully, gingerly, he reached under the blanket and took the king’s thin and frail arm. He put his fingers to the bony wrist and waited. Then he pressed his fingers under the sharp line of the king’s jaw and waited. He pulled up the eyelids and blew a gentle puff of air into each eye. Finally, he took a small mirror from the ice on which it had been sitting and held it under the king’s nostrils, resting gently on his thin, reddish-grey mustache.
A moment passed. Then another. The doctor looked up at the two Royal Clerks who stood on the other side of the bed and he shook his head. Gently, carefully, he pulled the thin blanket over the king’s face and began to pack up his equipment.
The clerks watched him as he worked. The doctor had brought a special case that had compartments for everything, and he put them away with the ease of a lifetime’s work. He snapped the latches shut and lifted it with a little effort – many long nights of work had taken their toll – and then nodded to the clerks. They nodded back. The doctor left the king’s chambers, and a moment later a wailing could be heard from the sitting rooms beyond. The ladies of the court had gathered there to pray for the king’s well-being, and they were distraught to learn that their prayers had not been enough.
The clerks remained in the royal bedroom. The elder clerk pressed her lips together and took deep, deliberate breaths. She had worked for this king since she was a girl, and had learned everything about how to run a kingdom. Over the years, the king had shown her nothing but kindness and patience and respect, and even though his death had come as no surprise, it still cut her to the bone. The shape under the blanket did not look like it could have been the king. It was too still for a man of such energy. Too small for a man of such greatness.
The younger clerk held himself still and quiet, with words building within him to get out. He had been sent to the castle by his father, who hoped that his son would learn to read and write and better himself. And he did, earning a place among the vast army of palace clerks. He had only made it to the level of Royal Clerk a few years ago, and had not spent enough time alone with the king to feel that he knew the man. But he did know that while the death of a king was a tragedy, there was the succession to be considered. And that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, if you – and the king – were lucky. As much as the younger clerk regretted the death of his king, he was looking forward to watching the internal workings of the kingdom as it prepared for his replacement.
The elder clerk touched the younger’s arm, causing him to jump a little. The elder nodded to him, and he nodded back. They straightened the sashes that crossed their chests, shook out their voluminous sleeves, and lifted their heads high. They had a duty to perform, and it was important that they be seen to do it. Let the ladies of the court weep and wail and lament. The king may have been dead, but it would be the clerks who saw to it that the kingdom continued to function.
The younger clerk opened the door and then stepped to the side. The women in the other room fell silent as the two walked out of the king’s chambers and, without a word to anyone, continued through the waiting-room and out into the hallway. None of the ladies called out for news. They already knew, and the face of the elder clerk was enough to tell them that they were right. They knew, just as everyone else knew, what was to come next, and that this was no time to be wasting breath on questions that everyone knew the answers to.
Someone would be along to prepare the king’s body for burial soon enough. The clerks swept through the warm and bright corridors of the Royal Apartments, their feet silent on deep-pile carpet that seemed too bright for the occasion. A pair of guards stood by the doors that led out to the common section of the keep. Tomorrow they would be dressed in black, but for now they both stood in their blue-and-silver uniforms, swords by their sides. The guards were supposed to be impassive and utterly unshakable. but there were tears running down their otherwise blank faces.
The clerks continued through the keep, going from staircase to hallway to staircase, always going down. Through the family quarters to those of the high staff and then to the lower. Past the kitchens and the storehouses and the vast rooms where the quartermasters stored everything that a castle needed in order to function. Down past the laundry rooms and the ever-burning boilers that kept hot water running through the castle, an advancement that made them the envy of every other kingdom.
They stopped by a heavy door that was guarded by a heavy man. His uniform was dark leather and wool, to keep out the chill of the stones now that they were underground. He nodded at the clerks and removed a key from his belt. The key, made of black iron, unlocked the three locks with a dull thud, and then he was able to swing open the thick oaken door on well-oiled hinges. The clerks continued down, each one holding a brightly burning torch.
At the bottom of the stairs was another guard, in the same black-and-grey as the man at the top. This one stood up when they entered, a long corridor of blackened and barred doors stretching into the darkness behind him. The guard presented them with a paper to sign, a system of the elder clerk’s own devising. The form asked for their names, and the name of the person they needed to talk to. When they left, they would sign again, and the guard would affix his stamp to the whole affair. There would be no interfering with the prisoners, no secret visits and murders under cover of darkness.
The elder clerk handed back the form. The guard looked at the name she had written there and then back to her, his eyes welling up as he did so. His mouth moved with the words he couldn’t bring himself to say, and he turned into a quietly blubbering mess when she nodded. The guard tried to breathe, but tears overcame him each time, and the younger clerk had to bring his chair around for him to sit on. They waited there for a few moments until the guard could get himself under control. He finally took those deep breaths, cleared his throat a few times and wiped his eyes and his nose. His face was red with the emotion and embarrassment, and he tried to look as official as he could. He stood straight, his feet planted and his arms behind his back, staring at the foot of the staircase they had come from. Except for the gently trembling lip, he looked like a wall that would keep out the world.
The younger clerk gently tapped him on the shoulder, and the guard started. His face flushed again as he opened the cabinet by the door and took out a brass key. The key had a leather tag attached with the number five burned into it. The clerk took it with a smile, and nodded to the guard, who resumed his impassivity.
They walked as quietly as they could on clean, cold stone. They stopped at door number five. The younger clerk handed the key to the elder, and she paused a moment before unlocking the door. They held their breath. Then they opened it.
All of the cells were swept out once a week, and the waste buckets were taken every day. There was still a wooden plate on the small table that was bolted into the wall next to the door. The bed was a mattress in the corner. It, too, was clean – or at least clean enough. They were taken out once a month and replaced. The king had made himself very clear many years ago – it may be a dungeon, but the prisoners were still human beings and would be treated as such. There had been murmurs of disagreement from his court, but there were few times when his determination to do the right thing could be swayed by mere murmurs.
The clerks stood in the doorway, casting a long shadow on the man lying in the bed, his heavy wool robe wrapped around him and his hood pulled up to hide his eyes.
He looked up when the elder clerk cleared her throat. He had a red beard and his eyes glinted blue through the squint. Red hair poked out of the hood, falling on his forehead and curling out past his neck. He was pale and tired, but healthy. He sat up and rubbed his eyes again, resting his elbows on his knees.
The elder clerk opened her mouth to speak, but closed it when she realized that the prisoner was laughing. Quietly, yes, but the noises he was making – the way his back shook – they were laughter. And when he looked up at them, the dark humor in his eyes was enough to confirm it. She shut her mouth, and her lips twisted as though she had tasted something foul.
When he spoke, the prisoner’s voice was raspy and dark. “So,” he said. He looked from one clerk to the other. The younger one actually stepped back. The elder didn’t move.
He reached up and stretched, slowly and languidly. Then he leaned back and sat against the wall, examining his long – but clean – fingernails as though he wasn’t locked in a cell deep beneath the castle.
“I suppose this means my father is dead.”